Besides being one of the forgotten castoffs of the 2 Tone scene, the Equators were also one of the most neglected signings to the "oh so hip in its day" Stiff label. Listening to their music nowadays, one wonders just why they never hit big. Their Hot album seems to have it all, epitomizing the breadth of the early-'80s U.K. scene -- ska, reggae, rock, and new wave all rolled into one big, ebullient sound. But back then, most Brits preferred their music pretty pure, and the band was blending too many disparate styles into its sound for comfort. This seems to have worked against them in the 2 Tone scene, where by rights they should have made their home, an all-black counterweight to the all-white Madness. But perhaps their biggest problem was simply that they were just too accomplished for their own good. Keyboardist Rocky Bailey obviously had classical training, and wasn't afraid to showboat it; lead guitarist Dennis Fletcher was proud he learned his licks listening to a blizzard of '70s hard rock; lead vocalist Donald Bailey hankered toward American soul; while guesting trumpeter Dick Hanson apparently studied at the feet of American jazzmen, not Jamaicans. So where were the Equators' true musical roots -- Jamaica, the U.K., the U.S., the rock scene, the reggae sound systems, the jazz clubs, the U.K. discos, or beyond? So slick is their sound, it's impossible to tell. Everything is given equal weight in the arrangements: the new wave synths, Leo Bailey's frenetic ska beats and Cleveland Clarke's thumping bass, the searing guitar solos, the soul-styled vocals, the jazzy horns.
"Where Did Johnny Go?" exemplifies their approach -- it takes its musical inspiration from "Johnny B. Goode" (but served up in rollicking ska fashion), then kicks in the rockabilly guitar solo, then simmers into a long groove before fading into oblivion. The lyrics turn "Goode" on its head, as tough guy Johnny bows out of the competition and bolts for the hills. The infectious "Rescue Me" is even more of a musical smorgasbord, a ska-wave hybrid that stirs in both classical and proggy keyboards, with smooth-as-silk vocals from Fletcher, who takes the lead here. "Age of 5" is a skinhead stomp, but the group can't stop from tinkering, and tosses in smooth, lush sections that would have the skins calling for their heads. "If You Need Me" is a lush synth-love song delivered at a breakneck pace. If the Equators had seemed less sure of themselves, one would have forgiven them these sins, and assumed that next time around they'd sort out a specific style and stick with it. Unfortunately, so evolved was their sound that change seemed unlikely, and the British public rejected them out of hand. In 1981 they were out of step and out of time; a few years later they could have been wowing U.S. college crowds across the nation with their tight and startling hybrid musical style. And so, all that was left of Hot was a pile of ash, and this stunningly original and exciting album disappeared without a trace from the racks. It's so unique that decades later it still sounds fresh. Find it if you can, and try to convince your friends that it's not a hot new band, but rather a 20-plus-year-old dead one.